High Protein and Low Carb Diet Does Not Put You At Risk

Scientists examine the idea that high-protein, low-carb diets are bad for your health. Turns out the vegetable-based protein diets had more risk than animal-based protein diets.

If you read my articles much at all, you probably know I’m a fan of the paleo diet. I think lean healthy meats and lots of vegetables isn’t just a nicely packaged diet label that’s growing in popularity. I think it just makes good sense. You can’t argue with that level of common sense.

Or actually you can. And people do. Many people take issue with eating too much meat and some with eating meat at all. There is evidence that meat consumption can have deleterious health effects, so the concern may be warranted. Others, especially among the athletic population, believe that too much protein intake can be harmful as well, regardless of where the protein comes from. A study this month in the Nutrition Journal covered just that topic.

Researchers in the study examined high protein diets also characterized by being low in carbohydrates. What does low in carbohydrates mean? The diets scoring highest on the high-protein-low-carb spectrum, which would be closest to eating paleo in terms of macronutrient profiles, averaged roughly 40% of the energy intake from carbs. If you eat 2000 calories a day, that’s about 200 grams of carbohydrates daily. To put it in perspective, for a paleo eater that’s more than six large apples, and it’s a little over two cups of elbow macaroni for those not eating paleo.

As such, depending on how you approach your paleo diet, you may be eating fewer carbohydrates than the average for the low carb group in this study, but that’s all right. It’s really the general macronutrient profile we’re interested in for until a little later in this article.

So what the researchers found was what I had hoped. They were looking for markers of cancer specifically, and they found none. This runs contrary to indicators that a high meat diet might be dangerous for your long-term health, since the prevailing protein source in the study was animal derived.

One of the concerns for the researchers was that high protein diets generally mean more meat, and more meat means more saturated fat. They did find a link between colorectal cancer in women with saturated fat specifically, and also in men with the high protein and low carb diet, but this occurred where vegetable protein was the primary protein source. (That’s right, being a vegetarian might put you at risk.)

Now, if we consider the paleo diet specifically, we have a diet similar in profile to what researchers looked at in this study, but with some key differences. The carb sources in the paleo diet are vegetable based, and so carry numerous benefits to health over what the participants in the study might have eaten. Additionally, consistent paleo eating involves healthy organic grass-fed meats that do not carry the higher saturated fat content that the researchers found was prevalent with a high protein diet. Quite the opposite actually, the quality fats in healthy meat probably reduce risks further.

When we combine the results in this study with good solid reasoning, it makes sense that a paleo diet is a very healthy way of eating. Many athletes use it with great success, as well. It’s also worth considering for those who haven’t given it a chance yet.


1. Lena Maria Nilsson, et. al., “Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet score and risk of incident cancer; a prospective cohort study,” Nutrition Journal 2013, 12:58

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